I had a beautiful lunch and conversation yesterday with a friend and fellow teacher. We shared sunshine and salad in the park, it was good to connect.
Our conversation drifted to how we support people and one of the (many) themes we explored was the power of touch.
Touch is necessary for human beings. For all beings in fact. Without touch, babies do not thrive. Neither do grown-ups! And yet we have some pretty screwed up messages about the appropriateness of touching in our culture. In context - looking for an appropriate picture for this post - I searched for "touch" on Flickr. I got pictures of ipods!
As a therapist, I provide professional touch. And I know, as every experienced therapist does, that it is not all about sore muscles. The desire and need to be touched is profound. This has been most apparent when I have worked with those who do not receive much in the way of non-professional touch i.e. the practical touch of a professional carer. I mean those who are sick or elderly, alone or marginalised.
And I think back to my training and remember that we didn't really talk about this stuff. There was a brief discussion on "men getting the wrong end of the stick" - the response to which was to to effectively boot them out the door! Erections were OK and "normal" ( erm - yes!) - we had to ignore them and carry on - as long as the man didn't want to do anything with it! :-) Yes, there is a need to uphold your own personal safety, but there is also a need to acknowledge and honour that a person is not a bag of bones. The person who climbs onto my couch is a whole person, with feelings and desires: met and unmet. My role is to sensitively and sympathetically navigate this person's responses, and to allow them to feel safely held in a space of touch with no agenda.
One of the most profound examples of this was my experience of massaging a man who was a violent offender. He came chained (really - big long Jacob Marley clanking chain) to a security officer. None of my fellow therapists wanted to touch him. I don't know what his crime was, and in some ways it doesn't matter. I didn't feel unsafe - although I acknowledge that the guard and the chains might have played a part in that. The man himself was charming and, after the massage, grateful and emotional. His security guard told me later that the experience had transformed his mood.
And yesterday as I recounted this story to my friend, we both realised that this man probably never receives anything in the way of gentle, nourishing touch. He is surrounded and contained by aggression. I guess some people will say that he doesn't deserve to be nourished or nurtured or cared for. I don't feel that way, but we all have our judgements. But I wonder that if this man had received the touch he needed in his young life, would he be where he is now?